Who was Charles Taze Russell?
Charles Taze Russell was an American Christian Restoration minister in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He was the founder of the International Bible Students Association which is also known as the forerunner of the Jehovah’s Witness group. Hailing from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he spearheaded what is now known as the Bible Student Movement. Following his death, the Bible Student Movement gave way to numerous independent Bible student groups all over the United States. Charles Russell initially came to popularity with his monthly religious publication ‘Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence’. A few years later, he co-founded Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society with Mr. William Henry Conley, who was a philanthropist as well as an industrialist based in Pittsburgh. This society was later officially registered as a corporation with Charles Russell as the president. Through the late 19th century, Russell wrote several articles, books, tracts, and pamphlets and delivered hundreds of sermons. The total number of pages he had printed was over 50,000. He also published a six-volume Bible study series which was initially titled ‘Millennial Dawn’ but was later renamed to ‘Studies in the Scriptures’. Nearly twenty million copies of this study series has been distributed all over the world.
Childhood & Early Life
Charles Taze Russell was born on February 16, 1852 to Scottish-Irish parents in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in the US. He was the second of the five children of Joseph Lytel Russell and Ann Eliza Birney. His mother passed away when he was only nine.
His family lived in Philadelphia for a while before shifting to Pittsburgh. There they became members of the Presbyterian Church. Charles’ father owned and ran a haberdashery store where he made Charles his partner when he was in his early teenage years.
When Charles was thirteen, he left the Presbyterian Church and joined the Congregational Church. He was an ardent Christian and used to frequently write Bible verses on fence boards and city sidewalks whenever he could.
As he entered his late teens, he began questioning Christianity in general and even studied up on various other religions as he had several unanswered questions. In the year 1870, when he was 18, he attended a presentation by Jonas Wendell, who was an Adventist Minister. Although he still had a lot of skepticism in his mind after listening to the speech, he felt convinced that the Bible was the word of God.
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By the time Charles Taze Russell was twenty, he had left both the Presbyterian and the Congregational Churches as he simply could not reconcile with the idea that a literal and eternal hell could exist despite God’s mercy being omnipotent.
With his father and several acquaintances, he established a group that undertook a thorough and extensive analytical study of the Bible. They researched into the origins of the Christian doctrine, creed, and tradition.
They concluded that certain doctrines of the established churches, like the trinity, hellfire and soul-immortality were not truly substantiated by the scriptures. Some of Russell’s own ideas focused on the imminence of the rapture and the second advent of Christ.
In 1881, Russell founded Zion’s Watch Tower Tract Society with Mr. William Henry Conley. At the time Conley was the president and Russell was secretary-treasurer. The same year, Russell published his first work called ‘Food for Thinking Christians’; it was a 162-page pamphlet. Subsequently, the society was legally incorporated in 1884 and Russell was appointed president before the name was changed to ‘Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society’.
The society had hundreds of local members with followers all over New England, Ohio and the Virginias. The members and followers annually re-elected Russell as their head and commonly referred to him as ‘Pastor Russell’.
As the new century dawned, several newspapers began to publish Russell’s written sermons. By 1903, his writings were being published in many newspapers all over America. The estimated readership at that time was around 15 million in the United States and Canada.
By 1909, the statistics showed that Russell’s publications had become the most popular and widely distributed privately produced English-language works in the United States. Though he was immensely popular with large groups from different backgrounds, his somewhat heretic views also attracted a lot of criticism from several researchers, pastors, priests, and followers who abided by the more traditional forms of Bible study.
Between 1886 and 1904, Russell published his six-volume series named ‘Millennial Dawn’, which was later renamed to ‘Studies in the Scriptures’. Russell was also involved in the production of a worldwide roadshow presentation called ‘The Photo-Drama of Creation’ which was a unique 8-hour religious film divided into four parts with two hours each. It was released to the public in 1914.
Charles Taze Russell is best remembered as the author of ‘Studies in the Scriptures,’ a series of publications intended as a Bible study aid. It became immensely popular and over 20 million copies of the study aid were printed and distributed around the world during his lifetime. The work was also translated into several languages.
Charles Russell married Maria Frances Ackley on 13th March 1879. The couple separated in 1897 and divorced in 1908.
Russell was accused of immoral conduct with a much younger woman named Rose Ball in the year 1894. He was also involved in another controversy related to the sales of a strain of wheat named "Miracle Wheat" which he sold for $60 per bushel, an exorbitant price for wheat at the time. His use of Masonic Symbolism attracted controversy as well.
During his later years, Russell’s health started to deteriorate. He became ill with cystitis during his final tour around the United States, and passed away on October 31, 1916 near Pampa, Texas, at the age of sixty-four. He was buried in Pittsburgh at Rosemont United Cemetery.
His successor as the President of the Watch Tower Society was Joseph Franklin Rutherford. The following years were marred by discord and division between several of the Bible study groups. Inevitably, a schism was created; those who were supportive of and loyal to Rutherford adopted a new name ‘Jehovah’s Witness’ in 1931, while several other groups left the Society to form their own separate groups.